Offseason Outline: Chicago Bulls
Here’s a look at what’s in store for the Bulls this offseason after their second-round loss to the Heat.
• What’s the biggest priority for Chicago this offseason?
Getting healthy while filling out the bench.
Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich figure to be back in action in relatively short order, but this summer will provide a crucial window for Derrick Rose to get as close to game speed and conditioning as possible. He’ll be relieved of all pressure to return as he continues to build a level of comfort with his rehabilitated knee, and by late October — some 18 months since he last played an NBA game — Rose should undoubtedly be ready to carry Chicago’s offense on a full-time basis. In the meantime, this will be a working summer for Rose, as well as a chance for Deng, Hinrich and a banged-up Joakim Noah to rest after a long season.
Beyond that, the front office will be tasked with refreshing the bench for the second time in two offseasons. Guards Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli and center Nazr Mohammed — in addition to many of Chicago’s benchwarmers — will soon be free agents. Guard Richard Hamilton, 35, is likely to be gone, too. Only $1 million of his $5 million salary for next season is guaranteed, making the option of releasing him far more palatable than keeping him around.
If the Bulls follow through on releasing Hamilton, they would be left with a terrific starting lineup (Rose, Noah, Deng, Carlos Boozer and Jimmy Butler), two reserve guards (Hinrich and 2012 first-round pick Marquis Teague), a backup big man (Taj Gibson) and a glaring void where the rest of a functional bench used to be. The Bulls would have needs on the wing and in the frontcourt, with scant resources to address them. Even after waiving Hamilton to shave $4 million, the Bulls would have more than $74 million committed to nine players (assuming they keep their first-round pick) — deep enough into luxury-tax territory that the team wouldn’t have access to the full mid-level exception. The biannual exception would be off the table, too, as it was used last season to sign Belinelli to a one-year deal.
That would leave the Bulls with a $3 million window (the “mini” mid-level exception, available to taxpaying teams) and veteran-minimum contracts to complete the roster via free agency. General manager Gar Forman has proved capable of pulling off just such a feat (he restocked Chicago’s bench last summer on the cheap after letting Omer Asik, C.J. Watson and Ronnie Brewer walk), but another round of bargain-bin shopping doesn’t in itself guarantee the same returns. Chicago should be fine regardless, but a lack of bench scoring could be an issue if an adequate replacement for Robinson/Belinelli can’t be found at an affordable rate.
• How can the Bulls improve this offseason? Through free agency? The draft? Trade?
None of the above. Chicago won’t even have the means to bring back its own free agents based on its payroll history, much less make any significant additions through that avenue. (Chicago is set to pay the luxury tax this season for the first time in franchise history.) The Bulls can’t expect immediate help from the 20th and 49th picks in the draft. The trade market would seem to provide the most room for growth, but who can Chicago reasonably deal? Rose, Noah and Butler will be off the table. Deng and Gibson are crucial to the defense. Boozer is owed $15.3 million next season and $16.8 million in 2014-15. That leaves Hinrich (who has a $4.1 million expiring contract for 2013-14), Teague and the No. 20 pick as the most attractive trade options, though moving either Hinrich or Teague would open up a new hole in the depth chart. Chicago will be better next season, but that growth is likely to come almost entirely through internal development and improving health.
• Is amnestying Boozer a realistic option?
It wouldn’t be helpful in an immediate basketball sense. It’s not as if waiving him would make the Bulls a better team. And even if the Bulls wiped out Boozer’s salary (and cut Hamilton), they would still be almost $1 million over the 2012-13 cap of $58 million. (Next season’s cap should be comparable. Even if it does rise, Chicago in this scenario would have only a sliver of cap room, which would then be swallowed up by cap exceptions.)
If the Bulls amnestied Boozer, they would essentially be trading a valuable scorer, rebounder and passer for whatever could be had for the full mid-level exception — a salary that isn’t likely to land a better player, much less one capable of fulfilling their very evident scoring needs. As understandable as it is for Bulls fans to be frustrated with Boozer’s defense and salary, amnestying him accomplishes little besides netting owner Jerry Reinsdorf a few million in savings.